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Cane Hill Hospital - London [2005]

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London is a ruthless city - buildings that have served their purpose are quickly torn down and replaced - and yet Cane Hill still stands, almost fifteen years after it served its last patients. Built in 1882, it was once the largest building of its type, but it now lies derelict - a magnet for explorers, vandals, even filmmakers and artists. In the years since its closure it has acquired the reputation of being the ultimate abandoned asylum, the supreme embodiment of dereliction and decay. This is due mainly to the amount of equipment still on site - the extraordinary wealth of mementoes and personal information that still litter the corridors and wards – but also owes much to the asylum’s uniquely fearsome exterior. Viewed from the surrounding path, it feels more like a prison than a hospital. Even the name summons up images of some vacated battlefield; the location of some doomed last stand. 

Sadly, the building is now in a desperate state. The floor in several wards has disappeared while the ceiling in most corridors is close to collapse. With repeated arson attacks and continued weathering, it seems unlikely that many sections will survive beyond the end of the year. Perhaps the only factor now working in the hospital’s favour is its sheer scale. The building is so vast that even a concerted campaign by vandals couldn’t remove all of the curtains, smash all the furniture.

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Poor security has greatly hastened the building’s decline. Once a fortress, in recent years, access has become considerably easier. Security have retreated to the main entrance, and the patrols have steadily decreased in number. Indeed, such is its reputation for laxity, one group were even so brazen as to park their minibus in front of the hospital. In the last few weeks, however, the pendulum has started to swing the other way. Security has been tightened; dogs once again patrol the interiors. It seems that the constant stream of visitors have prompted something of a rethink. 

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As at most other hospitals, there appears to have been little reasoning behind the items left on site. Many are too personal to justify neglect, while others certainly had the potential for reuse elsewhere. Inevitably, this leads to a rather confused atmosphere in some sections of the hospital. Occasionally, there is the rather eerie feeling of panicked flight - scared inhabitants, grabbing what they could before fleeing. The feeling in most wards, however, is rather closer to the reality – staff and workmen too overworked and underfunded to clear the hospital properly. 

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Cane Hill has also been visited by hundreds of explorers – many of whom have inevitably tampered with the remaining furniture and paperwork. A wheelchair from Rossetti stranded in the pharmacy; the bizarre migration of ward reports from Hogarth to Ruskin - with the possible exception of the wards of Browning-Blake, very little in the hospital can be taken at face value.

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Most photographs of Cane Hill tend to accentuate its bleakness – black-and-white images of faded grandeur - and yet the thing that most struck me about the hospital was its colour. Admittedly most wards deferred to cream or pastels, but far greater flair was shown with decorations and fittings. In Lidgett-Lettsom, the curtains were a hypnotic, sun-infused orange, while elsewhere the kitchens were a dizzying collision of red and blue. Even the more personal remnants retained much of their sheen: luminous blue containers in the pharmacy, a burgundy dressing gown in Browning-Blake. And then of course there was green, each ward slowly being consumed by moss, mould and a glorious array of invasive plants…

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Beyond paperwork, traces of former patients were limited. .. A suit in a cupboard, Christmas decorations on the ceiling – but in most wards little else. A superabundance of machinery and furniture but nothing remotely personal. The only real exception came in the form of Browning/Blake – a ward to the south-west of the hospital. It has somehow survived thirteen years of visitors and vandals and remained much as it was when the hospital closed. Beds, mattresses and pillows are still in situ, as are the curtains and curtain rails. A dressing gown still hangs in a cupboard, while beneath one of the beds there is even a pair of slippers.

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Many of the bedside lockers also contain cards, and there are dozens of special clothes-hangers, each inscribed with a patient’s name. Even the day room offers several insights into hospital life. There are packs of generic razors, a table-tennis table and dartboard - even the skeleton of a fourteen-year-old Christmas tree.

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On the walls, notices still cling to pinboards. One announced the closure of the Patient Bank, while another laid out a schedule for the last inhabitants (each activity focused on reintegration into the community). Monday, for instance, involved the following routine:

0900 - 1000 - Exercises with Physio

1000 - 1100 - Basic Skills

1100 - 1200 - Current Affairs

1400 - 1500 - Basic Skills

1500 - 1600 - Bingo Session (Social Afternoon)

 

...and activities for the rest of the month included beauty care, cookery, horticulture, and community outings twice a week. Other notices concerned drop-in centres, rehabilitation schemes such as "Positive Futures", and even opening hours for the hospital canteen.

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[In each section of the asylum - but particularly here - there was an almost unbearable sense of waste. The intricate carving of a water pipe, a hand-painted fresco on the wall of a day room. Like the space behind bookcases, it can drive you insane if you accord it any thought. I’m sure that my urge to take photographs is partly an attempt at reclamation – shoring up a defence against obsolescence. As much as celebrating their past, it is an attempt to confer on these buildings, however misguidedly, some kind of permanence (and by extension, of course, to lend my movements, so often devoid of meaning and connection, some kind of significance or purpose). 

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The hospital pharmacy was also surprisingly well preserved – bottles and cabinets unbroken, boxes unopened. Surplus medication has long since been removed, but much of its packaging remained on site. Containers for anti-psychotics were scattered across the floor, as were containers for emergency drugs, each with an inventory on its lid. With everything from adrenaline to Lignocaine, they offered more than enough to subdue a manic patient, or to assist with crises such as heart failure. (In amongst this mess, there were also some amusing traces of former staff – particularly the Largactil tin that had been converted into a vessel for tea bags)

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As with any asylum there was the sense of finality [endgame] – of traversing the outer reaches of suffering and endurance. The nurses may have been kind, the grounds beautiful – but these buildings still represent life at its most attenuated and fragile. It is often people without exposure to their inner workings who feel the most affection for these asylums. Certainly anyone who has endured the blistering immediacy of acute wards, or the desolation of an underfunded geriatric unit, would struggle to feel sentimental about such institutions..

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"Phone call from mother to say that Mark was at home causing havoc - smoking cannabis and slapping his mother, also upsetting his grandparents. Urine specimen sent down to the path labs for drug screening. ........Returned to the ward at 3:30pm. Seen by ward staff, he was asked about his behaviour, about causing problems at home and with his grandparents, as apparently he’d taken [patient name] with him. Admitted to taking cannabis, also saying he’d taken money from the bank. To be discussed with Dr. Bernadt tomorrow."

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Stripped of people and their everyday detritus, even the most mundane of objects achieved a kind of monumentalism … (like rocks on the shoreline as the tide recedes). This was most evident in what would once have been the hub of the asylum – the laundry. Huge cylinders and pressing mechanisms were now adrift in a sea of concrete, while on the east wall a vast extractor fan lay silent above the exit.

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"And my brother lays upon the rocks,

He could be dead, he could be not,

He could be you.."

Given its proximity to London, it's hardly surprising that Cane Hill has a long history of treating famous patients and their families. Charlie Chaplin’s mother, for instance, was interred there (during the psychotic stage of syphilis), as were the siblings of David Bowie and Michael Caine. All three of these cases were particularly tragic - though perhaps the most harrowing was that of David Bowie’s half-brother, Terry Burns, who was older than David by around ten years. A paranoid schizophrenic, he spent much of his adult life in Cane Hill, his illness worsening significantly in his late twenties. On one occasion, while walking to a concert with a nineteen-year-old Bowie, he suffered a severe seizure and collapsed to the ground - convinced that flames were rising through the cracks in the pavement.

 

After countless attempts, Terry finally committed suicide in January 1985 - precipitated, it seems, by the early discharge of a fellow patient with whom he was in love. In the midst of a heavy snowstorm, he scaled a wall, walked down the hill to Coulsdon South station, and placed his head on the rails, looking in the opposite direction to the onrushing train. 

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"I had the privilege of nursing Terry whilst he was an inpatient and I was a Student Nurse at Cane Hill 1969 - 72. A delightful fella who made no demands on staff; always cheerful despite his grave health issues. He would often regale us with tales from the music world. 

 

The last time I saw Terry was around 1983 when I made a short visit to the hospital and came across Terry within the corridors. I was deeply saddened to learn of his tragic death. With love and fondest memories."

 

- Michael L Collins (forum post on 'Bromley Bowie')

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Bowie once said of his brother that " Terry probably gave me the greatest education, serviceable education, I could ever have had.", adding later that "Yes, it was Terry who started everything for me." Despite drifting apart in the early 70s, Bowie would allude several times to his brother in his work (never directly, of course, but through doubles, shadows and other conceits) - most obviously in 'The Bewlay Brothers', 'All The Madmen' and 'Jump They Say' - and, of course, by featuring Cane Hill itself on the American cover of The Man Who Sold The World. When Terry threw himself from a Cane Hill window in 1982 in a failed suicide attempt, a gift-laden Bowie visited him in Mayday Hospital, and would later send flowers to his funeral too (failing to attend only because of the circus that would inevitably follow).

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There is an astonishing photo of the pair that captures perfectly their different trajectories: Bowie sunglass-clad and mobile, his gaze trained forward; Terry, hunched and inert, like a migratory statue (the two of them utterly out-of-time with the postcard racks and elderly women behind them).

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Given his family connections, more is known of Terry Burns than most other patients - meticulous Bowie biographers and disenchanted family members providing key details about his life. It appears he served, for a time, in the Royal Air Force, and at one stage even married a fellow patient from Cane Hill. Staff from the hospital also recall him walking happily around Blake and Ruskin wards singing, as well as spending time in the art department and occupational therapy. 

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I wonder, sometimes, if any of his work was among the thousands of drawings and paintings abandoned in the Art Therapy department. There were certainly many pieces from that period; and given Terry's interests, it seems entirely plausible that some of his work survived. Bowie himself had a particular love of Art Brut (or Outsider Art) - visiting the art department at Gegging Hospital, and the Collection de L'Art Brut in Lausanne, near his Swiss home - and would no doubt have been fascinated by the range of work in evidence.

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In one room, I found myself knee-deep in paper, artwork spilling out from the cabinets above and covering every last inch of floor; (On each visit, a new was layer revealed, explorers helping themselves to countless souvenirs in the intervening weeks). Although some of the work was banal or imitative, most of it bore the hallmarks of outsider art in its purest form - particularly the lack of embarrassment, artifice or self-consciousness. With so many pieces there was the sense of art pared back to pure instinct and need - work produced by people without any conception of themselves as artists. (Art as a kind of silent haemorrhage or exhalation). The quality of each piece was almost irrelevant. Bold geometric patterns, glorious bursts of colour; each a reminder of the consolations and necessity of even the simplest forms of expression.

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With almost all destined for landfill, I wish I'd been more meticulous in documenting this artwork, or that I'd taken some pieces home with me. I found myself wary of being caught by security - chastened by countless tales of explorers being prosecuted for carrying a lightbulb or medicine bottle - though I now regret my cowardice. These works are rare instances of patient voice, representing hours or days of intense work, and deserved preservation in some form or other. 

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Patient poem unearthed in Art Therapy: 

 

Epitaph for Happiness (and Audrey)

 

There’s not one curse or evil deed,

No spells or promises to heed,

There is no equal power within the mind,

Yes!

Love’s happiness was hard to find.

 

[April, 1969]

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Hannah Chaplin (1865-1928) c.1885

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One day while Sydney was playing football, two nurses called him out of the game and told him that Mother had gone insane and had been sent to Cane Hill lunatic asylum. When Sydney heard the news he showed no reaction but went back and continued playing football. But after the game he stole away by himself and wept. When he told me I could not believe it. I did not cry, but a baffling despair came over me. Why had she done this? Mother, so light-hearted and gay, how could she go insane? Vaguely I felt that she had deliberately escaped from her mind and had deserted us. In my despair, I had visions of her looking pathetically at me, drifting away into a void.

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During rehearsals Sydney and I went to Cane Hill to see Mother. At first the nurses told us she could not be seen as she was not well that day. They took Sydney aside out of my hearing, but I heard him say: 'No, I don't think he would.' Then turning to me sadly: 'You don't want to see Mother in a padded room?' ....'No, no! I couldn't bear it!' I said, recoiling. ...But Sydney saw her and Mother recognised him and became rational. A few minutes later a nurse told me that Mother was well enough , if I wished to see her, and we sat together in her padded room. Before leaving she took me aside and whispered forlornly: 'Don't lose your way because they might keep you here.' .....She remained eighteen months at Cane Hill before regaining her health.

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The news of Mother's relapse came like a stab in the heart. We never knew the details. We received only a curt official notice that she had been found wandering and incoherent in the streets. There was nothing we could do but accept poor Mother's fate. She never again recovered her mind completely. For several years she languished in Cane Hill asylum until we could afford to put her in a private one.

Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (London, 1964)

Hannah Chaplin c.1930 (in Switzerland)

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The hospital also seems to have its own band of guardians – a silent few who return sporadically to repair damage and ensure order is maintained. Graffiti has regularly been removed from the chapel – although the most famous incident remains that of the bookcase and greeting cards (a tale relayed by the first major chronicler of the site). In one particular room he had discovered a bookcase, each shelf home to a row of perfectly aligned Christmas cards. One evening, out of curiosity, he decided to turn down several of these cards, only to return a day later to discover each of the cards returned to its original position. Similar stories abound – and whilst most are apocryphal – such accounts are too frequent in number to be dismissed completely. In amongst the vandals, explorers, freaks and security guards, there are clearly people who care a great deal about the hospital.

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Unsurprisingly, of course, the hospital has also been a magnet for thieves, their targets ranging from a few pieces of cutlery to enormous porcelain baths. Tiles on the roofs have also been removed, while copper has been stripped from all accessible wiring. Even the fuel from the one of the boiler rooms has started to be siphoned off. Elsewhere, there are signs of Satanic rituals and paganism (in most cases sheer bravado – but sometimes alarmingly well-informed) – and many doorways are bedecked in blue police tape.

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Yet another area in which Cane Hill surpasses all others is paperwork. Most is routine hospital fare - guidelines and government directives – but there are still numerous personal items on display. In the office of one ward, for instance, the desks and floor were littered with case notes. Many of the lives they captured were extraordinary – all the more so for the grand sweep of their narrative, and the taut unsentimental prose of the consultants. It was incredibly humbling to see someone’s entire life laid out before you - a childhood covered by a sentence, an assault barely stretching beyond a single clause.

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"The patient is one of three spinsters, all sisters, who live in the upper part of their married brother's house. They moved there about six years ago. The sisters are of rather unusual appearance and look rather like the weird sisters from a stage set of 'Macbeth'. They were extremely suspicious and reluctant initially to be interviewed but eventually opened up when given an opportunity to vent their feelings about the sister. The dominant one of the pair reported that the third sister had always been difficult, surly and inclined to bouts of moodiness in which she won't speak to anyone. Over the past few years she has become increasingly trying. She refuses to walk beyond the house and demands to be be taken anywhere by transport and has in fact only been beyond the house on one or two occasions. During the summer months last year, she would venture downstairs and sit in the garden.

 

Over the past year or two it seems on several occasions she has complained of feeling generally unwell, becomes languid and floppy and is put to bed. The doctor to whom she has always declined to speak, has never been able to find any physical abnormality. The sisters regard her behaviour as being spitefully motivated - "she's just difficult and lazy", essentially an act of malingering. 

 

It seems that from time to time she is incontinent which further adds to their conviction that she is being deliberately annoying. 

 

She spends her time otherwise just simply sitting about in the chair, doing nothing. She dresses herself, eats and sleeps well. She is very deaf and wears a hearing aid. 

She was seen on two occasions by the interviewer, as on the first it was impossible to arrive at a diagnosis. When seen she was in bed and she was having another incident of the type described by the sisters. She smiled and looked at the interviewer and was about to speak when he first entered the room and then appeared to change her mind, and gave the impressions of feigning a posture."

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"Patient is an old Boer War combatant, who after many years service, left the army to become a postman. For the past 38 years he has lived with his niece who has looked after his needs since his wife died (his wife died shortly after the niece came to live in the same household). 

 

Pleasant without being fatuous, but was suffering from general memory failure and scored only 1½ in the orientation test.

 

Recently he has expressed a desire to go to a nearby pub and has on a few occasions been escorted along the street by neighbours. Apart from this he does not appear to have left the house for years. He is generally unstable on his feet, but is able to manage the stairs. 

 

Although his niece seemed cheerful enough at interview, she often feels downhearted and wonders what there is in life for her. She fully admitted she would be glad when he is dead and asked the interviewer if this would be likely in the near future."

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Ward reports were rather more scarce, though the handful I stumbled across offered a fascinating glimpse of life in the hospital - mainly its monotony, of course (by far the most common entry was “nothing to report – all patients appear comfortable at time of writing”), but also its rare flashes of violence and disorder. These reports also offered my first encounter with patients my own age. Many of those listed were in their late teens and early twenties – and I found it impossible to look upon such cases objectively. I’ve somehow found my way out of that world, but most aren’t nearly so fortunate..

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"The patient is a pleasant, rather obese widow of 84 who has had a variety of physical illnesses in her life. …More recently, she has become depressed and has even been ruminating about her husband who died suddenly 15 years ago. She has been tearful and recently felt that it would be better if ‘God would take her’, but such feelings have not been voiced to others, and the district nurse was unaware of them. Recently she awoke in the night and saw her husband."

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"Patient welcomed the interviewer and commented on the praiseworthiness of an interest in the welfare of the aged. There was only evidence of mild rateable psychiatric pathology at interview – but it seemed she has been disturbed by the suicide of her grandson, an anaesthetist, about six months ago. The event, of which there was no previous indication, was a great shock to her and her family. She has slept badly, felt dispirited and the event has remained continually in her thoughts. 

 

She felt she had now recovered from it, and had accepted it as divine intervention. She has had a lifelong interest in Spiritualism, and allied subjects, and is inclined to interpret significant events in terms of such beliefs. Her husband, who died several years ago, was a Christian Scientist. She was again upset by his death and grieved for about a year, feeling his presence after death in the house. Her beliefs were well in accordance with the philosophies propounded by members of such associations, and could in no way be regarded as delusional, nor was there any evidence of sinister psychiatric abnormality.

 

Her garrulous talk was again a quirk of her personality. Apart from being a day out in her orientation, and suggesting that Lloyd George was the Prime Minister before Heath, see seemed well orientated. She seemed throughout mentally alert, cooperated well in the Names Learning Test. She scored only two errors in the first two trials. She tired visibly as the tests proceeded and scored only 46/60 

 

In summary a resolving grief reaction, with the persistence of moderate symptoms of anxiety. Slight memory impairment, but not dementia."

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The hospital may now lie derelict, but it remains very much a part of local consciousness (certainly there is nothing of remotely the same scale within the town’s boundaries). Approaching Coulsdon from the north, its water tower dominates the skyline, while its long driveway begins at the mouth of the town centre. Even when riding the bus from East Croydon, several people mentioned it in passing; and it remains a regular news item in the local press. With each generation, perceptions of the hospital change (it appears that fear has now been supplanted by curiosity); but the hospital retains a prominence greater than in almost any other town…

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Viewed from the footpath it still seems incredibly forbidding - yet once inside all unease vanishes. Many asylums have a post-apocalyptic aura - wastelands burdened with signifiers of death and illness – and yet Cane Hill seemed different. Everywhere there were traces of pain and suffering, but the mood was still one of gentle decline. Perhaps it was simply that many of the fixtures and fittings were so antiquated – but the overwhelming feeling was simply of a building whose life had run its course.

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Arson, too, is sadly a common occurrence – and yet at times I found myself thankful for some of the views it afforded me (inching down blackened corridors before emerging into an almost celestial light). In Vincent Vanburgh, for instance, a fire has caused the building’s entire mid-section to collapse. Light now streams in from three floors, granting an astonishing cross-section of its many cells and days rooms. Floors buckled and bowed, doors charred and fragile - and yet the whole area is like a firebombed cathedral.

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It is only such, of course, because firemen prevented the rest of the hospital from becoming an inferno - but it is still impossible to deny its splendour, or to deny the creative power of destruction. Indeed, the entire area provokes such awe, it seems hypocritical to condemn those responsible.

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Cane Hill remains the ultimate example of the strange life that buildings assume after they’ve been vacated. Arsonists and vandals have left their mark in many sections of the hospital – but such destruction is the work of only a tiny fraction of visitors. The overwhelming majority come only to inspect a magnificent ruin.

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Increasingly, I find myself wondering why people visit these buildings - and more significantly, continue to return long after their initial curiosity has been sated. The person who first showed me a way inside (an ingenious unscrewing of a loose slat on the palisade fence) claimed to have visited dozens of times; and I know of several others drawn back to Cane Hill in particular. Indeed, there now exists small group of explorers returning to the site on an almost weekly basis (most with camera in hand). Trolleys are ridden along corridors, machinery clambered into. Often an upper floor is colonised and a small party takes place. In one corridor someone had even affixed a poem to the wall, bizarrely including their contact details at its base.

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There are, of course, the more obvious elements - the peacefulness, wildness; the clandestine thrill of being somewhere forbidden or dangerous, the subversion and disorientation, the clear beauty and uniqueness of the spectacle - yet this still does not quite explain the compulsion to revisit. Having grown up in the shadow of an asylum, psychiatry was the backdrop to my childhood (and later the scourge of my adolescence) – and so former asylums naturally hold a particular fascination for me. When depressed, too, I often grow weary of family or nature, and need to be immersed in something more excoriating and hopeless. Each visit is not so much an embrace of new experience, or a search for some kind of answer, but rather an escape, an almost foetal retreat into the world at its most marginal and redundant.

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Perhaps the greatest illustration of my state of mind is the fact that I experience a sense of comfort when wandering about these forgotten asylums. Not exhilaration or awe, but comfort. Their innards ripped out, floors caving in, level after level of support slowly falling away - yet they are still there; from the outside appearing almost unchanged. Indeed, they are such a perfect metaphor as to be laughable.

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There is, then, an element of narcissistic projection - finding in the hospital a visual analogue for any despair - but it remains an urge I don't quite understand. As others have suggested, perhaps it also represents a turning away from unbearably oppressive consumerism - the demonic sheen of Starbucks and Bluewater. In antiquated trolleys and crumbling machinery, there is at last the chance to pause or to slow time…

“Dilapidation, derelict London… we love to wander in these little 'Stalker'-like scurf zones of underdevelopment, to escape the crushing sense of Now. Aspiration, hygiene, focus: we want somewhere to flee from this Amerika of the soul. …We don't hunger for the time when these caffs, these ruins and rust-heaps, were shiny-new. We savour their decay, the gentle rot...”   - Mark Fisher 

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(...this comes, of course, from the privileged position of material comfort ; for many people such conditions are the everyday, and this nostalgia or swooning must sometime seem baffling or indulgent)

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One of the last parts of the hospital I visited was the mortuary, a small building to the rear of the site that even included its own chapel. All that remained were trolleys, weights, and two lustrous porcelain slabs (one of which had been recently cleaned). Closer examination yielded some rather chilling details - drainage channels for blood and fluids, scales for the weighing of body parts – but the atmosphere remained sombre rather than grisly or macabre. As with much of the hospital, its most stark or harrowing features have been softened by nature; the random incursion of brambles and other flora. In an adjacent room there were storage bays for fifteen bodies, each lifted and stowed by an antique rack-and-pinion mechanism, but again, there was very little damage – the supports discoloured only by random patches of mould.

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Pigeon coos merged with the distant rumble of freight trains – but all wildlife at Cane Hill stayed resolutely out of sight - excretions and carcasses their only trace. In most instances, their bodies had decomposed beyond all recognition – although beneath a window in Andrewes, I discovered a still-warm bullfinch - its burnished plumage all the more startling when set against the dampened hues of the walls and curtains).

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My grandmother has been ill recently; the last few weeks punctuated by visits to the nearby hospital. Seeing her last night – in a dismal, urine-soaked ward – I began to feel rather depressed, but then suddenly a nurse smiled at me, a patient in the next bed made my grandmother laugh, and I was reminded of the rather simple truth that it is the people who make these places.

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Indeed, when it comes to asylums, compared to the testimonies of staff and patients, the buildings themselves are now of limited interest - crumbling relics with only the slightest trace of the people they once held. Almost all of these voices, of course, are now lost or barely recoverable - surviving, most often, in the heavily mediated form of ward reports and case notes - the buildings bearing mute witness to the thousands of lives that they shaped so profoundly. 

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